There are the television shows that you love to watch but that drift from powerful and provocative to comforting background noise, and then there are those that arrive with the momentous force of a revolution, issuing a clarion cry that is impossible to resist.
Women’s prison drama Orange Is the New Black, which returns for its second season on June 6, is most definitely the latter, a groundbreaking and deeply layered series that explores crime and punishment, poor circumstance, and bad luck. (At its heart, it is about both the choices we make and those that are made for us.) It constructs a gripping narrative that owes a great deal to the work of Charles Dickens, a social-minded and sprawling story that captures essential truths about those at both ends of the economic continuum. Just as in the Victorian era, within the world of Litchfield Penitentiary, everything is in its place and in its place is everything: Each of the characters is a cog in a larger machine.
The literary tradition of Dickens — so notably captured in HBO’s 2002–2008 crime drama The Wire — is keenly felt within Orange, as the action shifts between disparate characters in each episode, exploring their inner lives and hidden pasts. There is a strong sense of righteous indignation in the face of a broken and corrupt system, the failures of Litchfield a microcosm for the breakdown within the larger society. In the sixth episode of Season 2, Officer Susan Fischer (Lauren Lapkus) — perhaps one of the more genuinely sympathetic of the corrections officers — goes so far as to make the comparison, as she eavesdrops on the inmates’ telephone conversation recordings. “It’s so interesting, all these lives,” she says, her eyes gleaming with unrestrained excitement. “It’s like Dickens.”
The Jenji Kohan–created Netflix drama seemed to come out of nowhere last summer but quickly became the television show everyone was talking about. Orange’s first season was the triumphant arrival of an ambitious drama whose tone ricocheted with purpose from the contemplative to the absurd. In the process, the show gave a voice to a group of women, from whom society would shy away, depicting life at a minimum-security prison with appropriate grit and sympathy. No character — not even putative lead Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), who ended the season by brutally attacking fellow prisoner Tiffany “Pennsatucky” Doggett (Taryn Manning) — was wholly good or bad, but existed somewhere in the middle of that moral spectrum. At times, the effort to survive in the world of Litchfield meant casting off the entire notion of what it meant to be a good person, reflexively stopping to see the world in such simplistic ways.
Instead, Orange offers a deftly nuanced glimpse into a world of thieves and murderers, patsies and criminal masterminds, amoral corrections officers and corrupt prison officials. As in The Wire before it, characters shifting into focus or retreating to the background allows for a structure that can accommodate a multitude of personalities while shining a spotlight on different individuals each episode, providing a context that allows the audience to see her not just as an inmate, but as a woman. That sense of equality carries over across racial lines, focusing on each of Litchfield’s factions in turn. What makes these women tick, the pasts that they’ve left behind, the heartbreak and loss that led them to this point is slowly teased out through flashbacks that feel, at times, revelatory. Likewise, when the unseen eye of the show pivots to focus on Litchfield’s guards, there is the inescapable sense that they too are imprisoned.
That conviction of purpose feels especially apt within the first six episodes of Orange Is the New Black’s second season, which demonstrate an incredibly strong return. While the first season of the show was a sleeper hit, audience anticipation for Season 2 is at an all-time high; there is a lot riding on how well Orange can sustain the energy, tension, and creativity of the first season. If these first six episodes are any indication, the show is just as freshly tart and sweet as the first go-around.
In the second season opener (and here’s where the spoilers begin), Piper, who has been in solitary confinement since her confrontation with Doggett, finds herself in a situation that is straight out of Dickens’ Circumlocution Office, an absurd sequence of events whose purpose is concealed from Piper herself. As she’s transported to an unknown destination, the seemingly irrational nature of her travel would feel almost like a farce, if it weren’t so entirely terrifying for Piper.
The episode quickly sets up a new set of circumstances for Piper and introduces an entirely new set of oddball characters — cockroach-trainers, an astrologically obsessed sex pest, and Lori Petty as an inmate who smuggles a glob of Vaseline in her ear — as Piper tries to regain a semblance of equilibrium amid the unknowable. There are plot devices at play — like the tension between coincidence and fate — that feel straight out of a Dickens novel, but which don’t warrant spoiling here, because they’re just that surprising and in keeping with the show’s ability to engineer suspense and tension out of the seemingly mundane. A mystery about the Piper–Doggett fight emerges and is quickly resolved, its resolution both satisfying and unnerving.
Subsequent episodes focus on characters whose pasts haven’t yet been explicitly spelled out just yet. A series of Taystee (Danielle Brooks) flashbacks depicts her childhood and teen years and introduces a new character to the mythology of the show: the manipulative and dangerous Vee, played with exquisite oiliness by the great Lorraine Toussaint. Vee is a Fagin-like character, gathering unwanted urchins and promising them warm dinners and a home for their participation in crime, in this case, the drug trade. As she bakes multigrain bread and cooks organic fare for their dinners, the implications of Vee’s insidious nature are apparent: You can only come home if you’ve fulfilled your obligations. As such, Vee seems to be straight out of a Dickens novel, a dodgy operator who knows how to get under people’s skin and make them do the dirty work for her. When Vee shows up at the prison, her presence within the narrative destabilizes the entire wonky order of Litchfield itself. She’s a disruptor and an agitator; her very arrival spells danger.
Likewise, details emerge about the backstories of cerise-lipped Morello (Yael Stone) — which will likely generate some very intense discussion when viewers reach her episode — as well as that of Samira Wiley’s Poussey (a heartbreaking tale of love, loss, and intolerance), and Selenis Leyva’s prison cook Gloria (whose past unfolds in a story about battered women, crimes of necessity, and the cleansing power of fire), and Uzo Aduba’s Suzanne aka “Crazy Eyes,” whose painful flashback episode establishes her as a deeply tragic and sympathetic figure. In the case of Poussey and Suzanne (who’s referred to by her real name more often in Season 2), the reasons behind their arrivals at Litchfield remain unclear, even as pieces of their formative years point towards future issues. (It bears mentioning that the two girls who play the younger Suzanne within the flashbacks — as well as Aduba herself — are extraordinary.)
Suzanne in particular remains pivotal to the central action, not just because of her relationship to Piper. She makes an easy and quick mark for Vee, who sees precisely how the other women exclude Suzanne and exploits it to her own advantage. If Suzanne was a cipher in the show’s first season — a character who not only quoted Shakespeare, but often performed the role of one of his fools — the second season deepens her character significantly while still retaining her unpredictability and explosive passion. Aduba excels at the scenes both where Suzanne is overcome with emotion and where she’s trapped by it; as a result, she is Orange’s MVP at times. (Laura Prepon, who plays Piper’s ex-girlfriend and betrayer Alex Vause and who gave the show’s first season a tremulous sense of frisson, appears in just one of the first six installments.)
The second season effortlessly sets up two overarching plots that both potentially threaten the status quo. Piper, under the guidance of self-absorbed ex-fiancé Larry (Jason Biggs), begins to snoop around the prison, looking for proof of corruption and complicity, the naïve soap-maker becoming a social crusader. (Her transformation is not limited to her budding expose-writer; a new prisoner’s obliviousness acts as a yardstick by which to measure Piper’s growth and transition into a more hardened inmate, a “lone wolf” who sees the error of her naiveté.)
Likewise, Vee’s campaign of control and her sly manipulation of those around her forces formerly strong relationships to fracture and old alliances to buckle. She is a woman used to getting her own way and the ease with which she influences her fellow inmates is scary to watch. As such, she’s quickly set up as a rival of excommunicated former cook Red (Kate Mulgrew), who has retreated to a sort of solitary confinement of her own since her loss of power, her roots white, her flame-red hair diminished. There is a fantastic scene between Red and Vee that sees the former rivals reunited, their enmity transformed into something resembling mutual respect or admiration. After all, they are both members of the old guard, stalwarts who have been through quite a few wars in their own time. It’s Vee’s arrival — and her sudden influence — that reawakens the beast within Red, as she sets out to reclaim her kingdom or forge a new one.
In Orange Is the New Black’s second season, these power struggles — along with the sort of greed, inequity, and the inefficiency of bureaucracy that are so prevalent in the works of Dickens — have not only taken root in Litchfield but threaten to choke an already restrained populace. Even in this place of imprisonment, the urge to grow, to find comfort, to learn, and to love is no different than the concerns of the inhabitants of Victorian England or our own world today; they’re just confined behind bars and barbed wire.